By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
6:30 AM EST, December 8, 2013
For nearly an hour, Justin Tucker's right foot boomed footballs into the warm Texas air.
He split the uprights from one distance, then marched back 5 yards and did it again, moving around the field with purpose and poise. He blasted kickoffs into the end zone and bounced onside kicks toward the sideline. Every swing of Tucker's right leg was done at full speed and with maximum effort.
Jerry Rosburg spotted a few flaws that would need to be fixed, but the Ravens assistant head coach and special teams coordinator loved how the ball came off Tucker's foot with such authority and accuracy, rarely veering right or hooking left.
"Without giving out secrets, I wanted him," said Rosburg, who with Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown put Tucker through a workout at the University of Texas a couple of days before the 2012 draft in April. "I wanted to get him in our camp. He validated what I saw on tape."
Why few other teams saw the potential Rosburg and the Ravens had isn't clear. Four kickers were taken in the 2012 draft, and Tucker wasn't one of them. Only three teams even made him a contract offer as an undrafted free agent. Tucker chose the Ravens, and less than two seasons into his NFL career, he's emerged as one of the league's top kickers and one of the team's most clutch and valuable performers.
Heading into Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings and their own standout young kicker, Blair Walsh, Tucker leads the NFL with 29 made field goals on 31 attempts. He's made 27 consecutive field goals, the second-longest streak in franchise history, and at a time when the Ravens have struggled to get the ball in the end zone, he's gone 9-for-9 over the past two weeks.
"Usually, I'm running off to the sideline, and I'm pretty [ticked] off that we didn't score a touchdown, but when you're sitting in the locker room, and you have that feeling of victory, you look back and say, 'Man, it's pretty awesome to have a guy like that,'" Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said of Tucker. "The guy has been really, really good, and we've won a lot of games because he's hit kicks."
In 28 career regular-season games, Tucker has made 59 of 64 attempts, a staggering 92.2 percent success rate. He's hit eight of nine attempts from 50-plus yards and nailed all four of his postseason field goals last year, including the game-winning 47-yarder in the second overtime period of a 38-35 divisional-round win over the Denver Broncos. Tucker already has five game-winning field goals in his career.
"I respect his ability to be clutch," said the Vikings' Walsh, who set an NFL rookie record by making 92.1 percent of his field goals last season. He's missed just three in 25 attempts this year. "He comes through for his team in a lot of situations. That's big time, that's a key to the NFL, to be there when your team needs you. I think he'll be a good kicker in the league for [years] to come."
Walsh first met Tucker at the Chris Sailer Kicking camp out in Las Vegas while both were in high school, and now they seem impossible to separate. Along with the St. Louis Rams' Greg Zuerlein, they head a new generation of NFL kickers who have helped change the expectations for the position league-wide.
In 2010, only five kickers made at least 90 percent of their field goals. Heading into this weekend, 14 have converted 90 percent or better of their tries.
Nobody has combined length and accuracy over the past two years better than Walsh and Tucker, whose kicking duel is an interesting subplot to Sunday's game.
"I follow what everybody is doing on Sundays," Tucker said. "I like to see where I stack up against them and, of course, you want to be the best at what you do. I'll just leave it at that."
Randy Bullock (Texas A&M) was drafted in the fifth round by the Houston Texans in 2012, Zuerlein (Missouri Western) and Walsh (Georgia) were taken in the sixth, and John Potter (Western Michigan) went to the Buffalo Bills in the seventh. Tucker, meanwhile, wasn't even invited to the NFL scouting combine despite going 40-for-48 on field-goal attempts at Texas while also serving as the Longhorns' punter.
"His dad and I joke that he was hidden in college at the University of Texas," Rosburg said of the Big 12 school, which has its own devoted regional cable sports network. "He went unnoticed at Texas. It's kind of a remarkable feat that he managed to do it."
When Rosburg and Brown traveled to Austin in April 2012, they were simply doing their due diligence, just as they had in previous offseasons. A little more than three months earlier, in an AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots, Billy Cundiff had missed a last-second, 32-yard field goal attempt that ended the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes. But Ravens coaches still had faith in Cundiff, and they didn't go to Texas with the idea of finding his replacement.
But for an organization that prides itself on creating roster competition, it certainly wouldn't hurt to look.
"Throughout the whole workout, Jerry hardly said a word other than instructing me for what we were going to do next," Tucker recalled. "I think, clearly, something set in there. It was a pretty short workout, but we got a lot done."
Rosburg privately hoped that no other teams had looked into Tucker as deeply as the Ravens did. Tucker and his agent, Rob Roche, meanwhile, made a list of five teams they were interested in; the Ravens were at the very top.
After he went undrafted, Tucker hit it off with Rosburg and Brown, and he liked how Ravens head coach John Harbaugh had a special teams background. He also knew there was some uncertainty with Cundiff's status. Ultimately, he felt the Ravens, not the Chicago Bears or the Dallas Cowboys, who also made free-agent offers, gave him the best chance to earn a job.
So he signed with the team and began his transformation as a kicker, all while engaged in a spirited training camp competition with Cundiff, the incumbent.
"The thing that was remarkable — yet not necessarily surprising, because he's a smart guy — is he understood the fact that if he wanted to do this, he's going to have to make some changes and he made those changes dramatically fast," Rosburg said. "We had a meeting in which we explained to him what we thought he needed to do to be a consistent kicker, not just a kicker. And the next morning, he started in on it."
Tucker likes to say that he is a completely different kicker than he was when he first tried out for the Ravens. He approaches the ball in an entirely different manner, and his aiming point has changed. But that aggressive leg swing that first caught Rosburg's attention that day in Austin, Texas, remains unchanged, as does the confidence and competitiveness that has Tucker believing he'll make every kick.
"I'm not one to believe in superstitions or jinxes or curses or anything like that," Tucker said. "I believe in working hard, living right and putting God and family first. As long as we're doing those things, we'll give ourselves a chance."firstname.lastname@example.org
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